As I mentioned in a recent post, an increasing number of performing arts organizations around the world have temporarily opened their vaults for us to enjoy their programming through YouTube channels or their own websites or apps. Like many out there, I’ve enjoyed quite a few hours of cultural programming at home as a result of this move. Of everything I’ve enjoyed so far, the programming that has moved me the most is Keeping Score, created by Michael Tilson Thomas with the San Francisco Symphony.
Keeping Score was a program launched in 2006, designed to make classical music more accessible to people of all ages and musical backgrounds through TV, web, radio, DVDs and the classroom. As a television series, Keeping Score was broadcast in the US by PBS. Several episodes were created, each taking a close look at the music of Gustav Mahler, Hector Berlioz, Ludwig van Beethoven and other composers. The series can be easily compared to Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts aired during the 1960s, in which the conductor would break down specific elements of a particular orchestra piece, with the orchestra behind him to play fragments or examples as he went along. Talk about the ultimate music appreciation lecture experience!
Here’s The Dare
Of all the Keeping Score videos available on YouTube, the one that has moved me the most is the one on Dimitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, titled Music Born of Fear. The work was composed between April and July, 1937, and premiered in November of that same year in Leningrad to an ovation that lasted well over half an hour.
And I dare you to watch it. Complete.
Why? If you’ve ever attended any of my music appreciation lectures, you know that we frequently address the fact that historical context of a particular piece of music or period when it was composed is extremely helpful in better appreciating the music and its meaning. Well, in this particular program, Tilson Thomas offers:
- A detailed account of the composer’s struggles with the Russian Communist Party during Stalin’s regimes, fearing for his life.
- A look at where the work was premiered. Yes, the conductor traveled to Russia to the places where Shostakovich lived and worked.
- Plenty of black and white historical footage of Russia in the 1930s to better immerse us in the composer’s surroundings.
- Interviews with living musicians who had the opportunity to work with the composer.
- Breakdown of each of the symphony’s four movements, performing passages on the piano, interlaced with…
- An orchestra performance taped in front of a live audience, where Tilson Thomas shares other passages as performed by the orchestra.
- At the end of the educational segment, you get an entire, uninterrupted performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, recorded in London while the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra was on tour, as part of the BBC Proms.
So even if you don’t like classical music, even if you don’t like Shostakovich, how can you go wrong with a great story, told beautifully, with colorful, engaging characters?
This is personal. This symphony is very, very dear to my heart. I first heard it live with my late father when I was 17 or 18 years of age in Mexico City, performed by the National University’s Philharmonic Orchestra (Orquesta Filarmónica de la UNAM) at Sala Netzahualcóyotl. I was mesmerized by the work, and in particular, by a passage in the first movement that remained engraved in my memory for years.
I shopped for an LP with the symphony shortly thereafter, and eventually a CD, going on to study the score while attending music college in Boston. I played it many, many times at home, but I didn’t get an opportunity to listen to it live again.
Until just a few months ago. In Guadalajara!
I saw it announced as an upcoming concert by the Jalisco Philharmonic Orchestra and immediately told my dear friend Paul to tag along. He did. We went to Guadalajara for the weekend, pretty much just to catch this concert, and it was very special for me to have the opportunity to enjoy the work performed live once more, after more than four decades. What a treat!
Paul, this is is for you, and for anybody else willing to take on the challenge. I’m pretty certain—well, hopeful—you’ll be glad you did. Here’s the video. If you can, use headphones, or plug this up to your TV if you have good speakers!
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